My friend Clover knows I love papercut artist Nikki McClure and has twice bought me calendars of her work. Each has a beautiful image of the season and a single word. BECOME for January. RETREAT for April. LINGER for September. This morning I turned the page to October –AWAY.
AWAY (alone) is the gift I have learned to give myself each birthday (whenever possible), each October 20.
Forty-five began with breakfast in Rome and ended with dinner in Paris. That evening, crossing the Seine from the Right Bank to the Left, I looked out at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and thought, “Who goes to Paris for dinner?” and then, “I do.”
What followed shook me to my core. Alone on my birthday in arguably the most romantic city in the world I thought “I don’t wish a man was here.” “I don’t wish a man was here.” And then, “I don’t wish a friend was here or that I ate anything different or wore anything different or that anything was different.” It was a moment of pure contentment and total bliss – fleeting and remarkable.
That trip – specifically my time spent in Rome – catapulted me on to a trajectory that had me living in Madrid six months later.
I had met a woman a few weeks earlier while volunteering in Perugia. Upon my arrival in Rome, she insisted on throwing a dinner/birthday party in my honor. As I rode the tram from the residential Trastevere neighborhood to Pyramid station on a Saturday night, flowers in hand, I thought, “It’s like I live here,” and then, “I can do this.” I knew just what the words meant – although I didn’t yet know where I’d be going … or how soon.
Forty-seven found me back in Paris waking up to a text that read, “Yesterday’s kisses are still on my tongue. Delicious. Happy Birthday, Gorgeous!” I spent that afternoon on a walking tour of Montmarte with a woman I had met just that morning. We shared a chocolate tart before parting company and she sang me Happy Birthday. That evening, I walked back to the bridge where I had found contentment and peace two years earlier – alone, eating a falafel from my favorite stand in Le Marais, and equally blissed out.
The romance lasted a glorious six months. My friendship with the woman from the walking tour remains strong.
I’ve often said I am best on the road, on my own.
My internal travel clock grows loud and restless at about the five-month mark. My spirit calls for its sojourn. AWAY (alone). Some might call it running … but I don’t think so.
AWAY (alone) is a detour. It is a place where unfamiliar roads open my eyes and force me to pay attention to what is in front of me. I believe it is in that paying attention that magic shows its face and I am awake enough to notice and respond to it.
I leave for Montreal in 19 days – my 48th birthday – AWAY (alone) and wonder what gifts await me.
It is four weeks today since I left Paris. It feels like forever ago.
Not for the reasons most people think. Not because I love Paris, have dreamed of living there for as long as I can remember (even before I had ever visited), and occasionally wake up with French words on my lips – even though I don’t speak the language. Not because a reiki practitioner once told me I have “agreements” with Paris. (I still don’t know exactly what that means.) Although all of that is true.
Quite simply, I left my heart there … and I miss it, and him and what we shared.
What was meant to be 14 days together, zipping up to Normandy on his motorbike (“It will be like our honeymoon,” he said.) was goodbye instead.
I never saw it coming.
We met in October, on my way home from a writer’s retreat in Girona, Spain. It was, as my friend Michelle likes to say, “A romance for the ages.”
We found one another in a church basement – the kind where we both learned how to get and stay sober a number of years earlier – on his birthday, the day before mine. What began as coffee led to a meandering walk through Paris — sharing our stories, and a piece of cake — and ended with three knee-buckling kisses at the Bastille roundabout, my salmon-colored wool and silk scarf blowing in the breeze. One for his birthday, one for mine, and one to “tide me over” until we saw one another again in two days. The stuff of Hollywood movies.
Four days later, my last in Paris, he told me he loved me, and that he was in love with me.
“Is that crazy” he asked over a steaming bucket of mussels and live accordion music that wafted up the stairs.
“Yes,” I replied. “But I get it.”
He also told me he didn’t want to think about me every day, that he didn’t want to know how I took my coffee.
“But you already know how I take my coffee,” I said, smiling.
We agreed that we wanted to continue getting to know one another and that neither of us knew exactly what that meant. The next morning, boarding a plane back to the United States, I received a text, “Still love you, babe.”
Later that week, during the first of many marathon phone calls, he asked if I would come back in the spring. I said yes without hesitation and purchased a non-stop return ticket from Chicago to Paris for $500 the following day. I had never paid so little to fly to to Europe and chose to see it as a sign — a nod from God.
We spent the next six months writing long emails and sexy Facebook messages, talking on the phone for hours and eventually Skyping. What joy it was to finally see one another again.
I felt like I had met my twin. Funny enough, one of the last things he said to me was, “I met myself when I met you.” That was four weeks ago, when we said goodbye.
One month earlier, I had received an email, “I have some difficult news …” he wrote.
His son’s mother had asked once again if they might get back together. This time she said “all the right things.” This time, it was he who didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Brokenhearted would be an understatement.
Ten days later we Skyped and I asked if I might see him in Paris … to say goodbye.
“You’re still coming?” he asked, visibly surprised.
“My ticket is non-refundable. I’m going on to Barcelona, but I’m still flying in and out of Paris.
“Can I see you? To say goodbye?”
He agreed, and so we did. And when we did, he reminded me that his nine-year-old son lives in Paris … so he lives in Paris.
I knew he had certain ideas about the family he wanted – what it looked like – and believed he was healing some childhood wounds by giving his son what he had wanted most, stability and love, and the picture of family that he himself craved.
“I’m portable,” I said, reminding him I had said this all along.
He said I wouldn’t like living in Paris. (I disagreed.) That it is extraordinarily hard to get work there as a non-Parisian, even teaching English. That he never wanted a long-distance relationship.
He also said that we were “magic,” that I was his “vacation” and his “fantasy.”
What he didn’t say was, “Move in, lean in … we’ll figure it out.”
And so, with seemingly no other choice, I dropped the rope.
The day I had asked if I could see him in Paris, he asked if we might still be friends. “This,” he said, gesturing heart-to-heart, “I’ll miss this.” I said probably one day, but that I would need time — brave words that fell apart once on the other side of the Atlantic, when I hopefully asked, “Will we stay in touch?” even though I had been the one to ask for space after our goodbye.
“I don’t think so … I’d prefer not to,” he said. “I want you to go back to Chicago and write to me and tell me you found a man there who can give you a real relationship.”
I was crushed. Writing these words now, my heart aches.
But a funny thing happened when I returned to the United States, something that had never happened after a breakup before — I respected his wishes.
We agreed I would let him know when I arrived home and that I would send some of my writing to him – musings about our time together. I did both and he responded warmly, but without opening any doors. “I’m not ready to read this just yet, but it’s good to know it’s here” he wrote, and thanked me for sending. Seems this ending is difficult for him too.
Now there’s nothing left to do but grieve.
I’ve never had a clean break before.
In my 20s, breakups included language like, “Of course we’ll be friends,” which seemed to mean something entirely different to my former partners than to me, which looked like me acting as if nothing had changed, except for the addition of some teary, “I miss you’s” and “Are you sure’s?” In the end my ex’s usually had to push me away, it seemed the only way I could give time and space apart.
Since my divorce five years ago, I’ve had only one other relationship, which only sort-of ended when I moved to Madrid in 2015. We spent my year abroad in a liminal space which, while not exactly ideal or exactly what I wanted, seemed to suit me on some level. It was never entirely over until I moved back to the United States last July.
So this is new, this clean-break thing, and here’s the rub – it still hurts like hell. There’s nothing to do, nothing to be done. This clean break means there’s no drama around calling or not calling, writing or not writing, dissecting every bit of conversation. The not-clean-break means I can feel like I’m still in something. There’s some kind of crazy hope, but with this there is none.
Just memories. And sadness.
Yes … I have days where I’m not really sure we’re done. Others say that about us too. But I know, at least for now, we are.
Michelle was right. I did have a romance for the ages … and I haven’t even shared a tenth of it. I haven’t written publicly about it at all, until now. It was tender and private and new. It was ours. It still is. But it is my story too and I am a storyteller.
Last night I listened to a TED Talk by Anne Lamott. In it, she said, “You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your own heart, your stories, memories, visions and songs – your truth, your version of things – in you own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.”
It was those words that inspired me to write. That, a fire in my belly, and the memory of blogging about every other romance gone astray since my divorce. Sharing my story and opening it for conversation had felt both vulnerable and healing. There is something about speaking one’s truth, being witnessed, and hearing, “me too.”
It’s what we do in those church basements where he and I got sober and where we keep going so we can stay sober. As my friend Bob likes to say, “A problem shared is cut in two.” If that is so, then posting this hits it with a sledgehammer – cracks it right open sending sharp little shards in every direction that I will be picking up off the floor for months to come, even when I’m certain I’ve vacuumed them all up. The sun will hit the hardwood in a certain way and I’ll find another little piece.
I guess that’s what great love does – cracks us right open and destroys us. I hate it. And I wouldn’t change a single thing.
It is 1993. I am 24-years-old and about 10 days sober. I am laying in a shallow bathtub when my mother calls to wish me a Merry Christmas.
“We’re Jewish,” I say.
“So what?” she replies. “It’s still Christmas. And it’s fun.”
“I wish I were in Israel,” I say.
When I was growing up, my cousin Wendy hosted an annual “Chanukkah Party on Christmas Day for Jews Who Have Nothing To Do.” It was a raucous affair with latkes, dreidels, wine, and even a couple of nuns Wendy worked with at the Sisters of Mercy, where she managed their pension fund.
But that was many years ago.
In 1994, the year after my bathtub lament, I moved to San Francisco. There, with my Irish-Catholic roommate Tim, I purchased my first Christmas tree and participated in the post-holiday “tree toss” out the second-story window of our Haight-Ashbury apartment – Tim spotting from the sidewalk while I heaved the heavy trunk out the curved glass window.
A year later, I experienced the Jewish Christmas tradition of Chinese food and a movie for the very first time — an experience I had missed due to Wendy’s parties.
One more orbit around the sun had me hosting my very own Christmas Eve dinner — an effort to assuage my British boyfriend’s longing for family and Christmas cake from Marks and Spencer. The guest list was made up of friends who filled my home for Rosh Hashanah and Passover dinners, and I cooked up a pot of risotto while my partner made chocolate pie.
By now I had discovered most San Francisco transplants don’t return “home” for the holidays – Thanksgiving or Christmas — and the city is ripe for a Jewish-British Christmas dinner party followed by a bike ride or a movie and dim sum the next day.
In 2007, now married, we moved to Chicago — where everybody goes home for the holidays. To the suburbs. To Michigan or Ohio. Indiana or Wisconsin. Where there are few strays or orphans.
For the next four years, each December we would ask ourselves “to gather or not to gather.” Sometimes we did — opening our home and our hearts. Other times we simply facilitated — reserving two large, round tables in Chinatown and waiting to see who would join us. Occasionally, we were invited to someone else’s celebration.
We spent our last Christmas together in Seattle – where we had moved a few months earlier. I made a final vat of risotto while my friends Earl and Jesse jammed with my husband on guitar.
A year later we were divorced and I found myself once again in Chicago – scrambling for a plan. I have no recollection of what I did that year. And only vague ones of dinners at Min Hing in the two seasons that followed.
Last December, I spent Christmas in Cologne with my sixth-grade lab partner. I was living in Madrid, just a few hours flight away. She picked me up on Christmas Eve with a trunk full of food – explaining the grocery markets would be closed until December 27. At 5 p.m. the airport Starbucks had already closed.
We cooked, ate, talked for hours and went for long walks down wide boulevards that reminded me of Chicago’s Logan Square. On Boxing Day we visited the Christmas markets and stuffed ourselves with giant potato pancakes topped with sour cream and applesauce. It was, without a doubt, my best Christmas.
This December, as the days grew near, I waited to hear if anyone would be “gathering the troops” for Peking Duck. But all I heard was silence. I considered spearheading the process as I had so many times before, but frankly felt too exhausted.
It seemed I would be alone … that is, until an ex-boyfriend phoned a week before the holiday.
“Why don’t you take the train down and join mom and me for Chinese food and TV back at the house? You can spend the night or if you prefer, I can drive you home,” he said brightly, adding, “Mom is really excited to see you.”
Lovely. And yet.
His invitation felt intimate and familiar. Too intimate. Too familiar. A little girlfriend-y. Except I wasn’t his girlfriend anymore.
I sat with his invitation for nearly a week until the morning the words “What do you want to do?” slipped off of my pen while journaling. And then, “What would be fun?”
“A Writers Retreat.”
The words came quickly, followed by, “Meditate. Exercise. Read. Face mask. Bath salts. Beautiful food.”
When I mentioned this to my friend Nikki, she offered up her apartment as a “retreat facility.” She and her husband would be traveling to Wisconsin to be with family. A few days later my friend Clover suggested I open one of her Chanukkah gifts to me early. It was a turmeric and gold clay face mask. “For your retreat,” she explained, smiling.
That night I wrote my ex-boyfriend a note — thanking him, but declining his invitation.
I thought about my 45th birthday. The first one I spent alone – by choice — waking up in Rome and going to bed in Paris.
Walking across the Seine, looking out at the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, a thought rose up inside of me. “I don’t wish a man were here. I don’t wish a friend were here. That I wore something different or ate something different. I don’t wish anything was different than it is.”
It was a revolutionary idea. One I didn’t choose to think. Instead, it lived inside of me, speaking with its own voice.
Two years later, I returned to Paris — alone — for my 47th birthday.
I woke up in Chicago and went to bed in Chicago. And in the hours between, I ate smoked salmon, pomegranates, chocolate and fresh dates. I slathered my face with gold clay and soaked in the bath reading Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” I wrote. I meditated. I danced, napped and wrote some more.
I didn’t wish I was in Israel. Or Cologne. With my ex-boyfriend or ex-husband or a friend. Eating dim sum, riding my bike or watching a movie. I didn’t wish anything was different than it was.
I was Jewish, solo and sans Chinese food. And Merry on Christmas.
It is November. The weather gods have smiled upon us with sunshine and seventy degrees.
(Many would say the baseball gods have also smiled upon us as the Cubs are in the World Series.)
It is a good time to be in Chicago.
I pull on a pair of brown corduroy trousers from the Salvation Army. Ralph Lauren. Six dollars. Boot-cut and too long in the legs for my not quite 5-foot, 3-inch body.
I slide my hand into the left, front pocket and pull out two small, slippery stubs. Used metro tickets from Paris.
I smile. Wistful.
I’ve been back just eight days but already Paris seems so far away.
The baguette I never eat here but cannot not eat there. Both doughy and solid. Formidable and yielding. I’ve never found anything quite like it at home.
The coffee. Short. Dark. Thick. Served in little cups and drank leisurely in a café, or standing up at a bar, but never taken to go.
The woman who says over coffee, “It’s like there was an empty chair waiting for you, and you slipped right in it … as if you were always there.” And the faces around the table nodding in agreement.
I try to conjure this up in my body. The bread. The coffee. These people who in a matter of days became my people. And I became theirs.
The pastry. The poetry.
The feeling I have every time I find myself in Paris … that my heart might burst if I’m not careful. The feeling I have always been here and will always be here.
But muscle memory fails me … for I can see it, but not fully feel it. Not in my bones. At least not in this moment.
Perhaps it is because I am so here.
In Chicago on this 70-something November day on a bike that doesn’t quite fit me. A loaner from the mechanic until mine is fixed. Wheels out of true. Seat too low. I am more wrestling with it than riding. And yet, I feel the sides of my mouth curling into a smile when I do. My now 47-year-old body embracing the challenge.
Editing my book. Cooking soup. Applying for work.
Watching a Cubs game at a dive bar for no other reason than I have been invited and it sounds like fun.
I am too present here to fully feel there for more than a few moments. And I realize the gift in feeling the ground beneath me. The swish-swish of fallen leaves under my feet.
I have spent years wishing I was somewhere other than where I was — even in Paris — missing the moment.
My friend Paul recently asked why I “even bothered” to come back in the United States. “Your writing is pure poetry there. That is your place,” he says. Perhaps. But for now I am here.
I slip the tickets back in my pocket — so that I might find them again one day and be reminded. Of baguettes and coffee. Poetry and pastry. Of the people who held a chair for me … waiting.
That mid-October was a good time to be in Paris. And right now is a good time to be here.
I’ve had the same Weight Watchers “Before” photo for nearly 12 years.
It is of me and my ex-husband, drinking wine at an outdoor cafe in the Fifth Arrondissement in Paris — the day after my 31st birthday.
My friend Nora calls it the perfect before photo, pointing to the visible roll at my belly, the buttons straining at my pre-reduction breasts, gaping fabric, and my somewhat distorted face.
I share this photograph with new Weight Watchers members as a way of creating rapport and earning credibility — as if to say “I’ve been there…I know” and also, “this is possible” without uttering a word.
Some gasp. Others laugh uncomfortably. A few offer up kind words like, “You were still cute.” Occasionally I am asked, somewhat rhetorically, “This is you?” to which I reply “the other is my ex husband,” and sometimes add, “it is his ‘before’ photograph too.”
Last week I heard something different, something I hadn’t heard before — twice, from two different people.
“Are you still with him?”
I was taken aback. It seemed out of context, but also surprising, as for so many years, so many of the members knew him — or at least of him.
He was the one pushing the basket at Trader Joes. The bike racer turned massage therapist turned doctor who helped guide this girl who failed gym class into a reluctant athlete who dabbles in bike centuries and triathalons. The one who asked if I earned more activity points in the winter, as I surely burned more calories trying to keep warm. The reason I left California and then Chicago — choosing to flank him on his journey from medical school to residency to doctor.
But I rarely, if ever, mention him in Weight Watchers meetings anymore.
Thursday, after my lunchtime meetings closed, I shared the twice-asked, seemingly unusual question — “are you still with him?” — with my colleagues and added, “I think I need a new ‘before’ picture.”
It feels like more than a gentle nudge from the universe telling me to “move on” — to find another 35-pounds-heavier reminder of who I used to be, because offering up a photograph of the two of us more than half a dozen times each week is no longer serving me.
And so I wonder what else I might be doing that doesn’t contribute to my “moving on.”
There isn’t much of our past surrounding me — I left most of it with him in Seattle. A cooking pot, French coffee press and a three-season sleeping bag. My Italian road bike, a pair of snowshoes and a lithograph by an African artist called “Masks of the Healer #2.” It hangs over my dining room table, a sort of talisman watching me as I write.
I also removed him from my feed on Facebook after being “greeted” by a photograph of him, his girlfriend and his new cats on Christmas Day. It wasn’t the image of him and another woman that bothered me so much (I’d seen photographs of the two of them before.) It was the juxtaposition of him in his new life, wearing his old bathrobe — a plaid flannel, L.L Bean — that got to me.
And yet, I was still typing part of his name and social security number several times each week — using the combination as a secondary password. So yesterday at work, I changed it to something more me-centric.
But finding the right before picture is more challenging. We were together for 15 years, so he is in many of my photographs. (My mother’s too. She cut him out of the one on top of her bureau.) Also, I didn’t keep many photographs of me 35 pounds ago. I had ceased to be that woman.
And I’ve ceased to be that married one as well.
There are other befores. And there will be other afters.
A few weeks ago, over dinner, a woman I know asked me who traveled with me to Italy.
“No one,” I answered. “Myself.”
Like the silence I heard when I was a we, and responded to the question “Do you have children?” with a simple “No.” The quiet, uncomfortable space while they waited for some sort of explanation. Something to make them feel more comfortable with the answer that made them uncomfortable.
The same silence that often greets me when responding to the question, “Are you seeing anyone?” with “No.” The same quiet waiting, for “But I was…” or “Well there is this guy I just met.” Or my friend Patsy’s genius answer, “I am seeing a lot of different men.”
For a while I acquiesced…talking about my not-quite-relationships. My Divorce Buddy. The Southern Svengali. The friendships, flirtations and occasional dalliances that made me feel like I had something going on. The relationships that ended seemingly before they even started. I think it made us both feel better.
This time was different. I felt no need to explain my solo voyage. In fact, I was downright chuffed (to turn a British phrase), pleased with myself and the situation I consciously and happily put myself in – alone for 17 days in Italy.
A few days later, I was asked the same question about travel mates. And I watched as the woman’s smile wrinkled into a pained frown. “You were alone…on your birthday?” The same question my mother asked me before I left. The same question I had asked myself.
“Yes! It was awesome!”
I told her about my 15-hour layover in Paris. About walking along the Seine, seeing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, laughing out loud, asking no one in particular, “Who goes to Paris for dinner on their birthday?” and replying, “I do.”
I told her about being present to the moment. About the real birthday present – of not wanting anything to be other than it was. Not wishing for a man or a friend. Not wishing I had worn something different, eaten something different, stayed in a different apartment.
She looked confused.
I’ve been thinking about why this trip was different. Why I was different.
I have traveled by myself before – on press trips and volunteer projects and meeting up with friends on the other end. But only truly “alone” once before – in the few days before and after participating in a volunteer project in the south of France.
I had longed to travel alone. It represented who I wanted to be. Adventurous. Glamorous. Strong. A world traveler. And yet, when I arrived in Paris alone in 2006 I only felt sad, scared and alone.
My answer, or at least part of it, came in an email from my friend Melinda. In it, she mentioned going to a play reading – by herself – completely spur of the moment.
“It kind of reminded me of your Artist Dates.”
Artist Date. Balm to my soul. Savior of my heart and mind. The simple suggestion by Julia Cameron in the book The Artist’s Way of a once a week “walkabout” to fill one’s creative coffers.
I took on the challenge nearly two years ago. Newly divorced and painfully licking the wounds of my first forays “back out there.” I had heard others talk about feeling free, having great sex, or at the very least, a lot of it, following the dissolution of their marriages. My efforts and experiences only left me feeling scared, desperate and crazy.
In a moment of grace, I turned away from convention, from the promises of partnership, and toward myself through weekly Artist Dates. To the opera. To the Art Institute. To ethnic grocery stores and new neighborhoods. To theatre and concerts. Alone.
Reading Melinda’s email, it occurred to me that perhaps all of this “structured aloneness” had prepared me for this – a seeming marathon of solitude.
Arriving in Rome alone last month, I felt the same anxious fear that had accompanied me to Paris. But this time I didn’t try to act cool. I didn’t try to pretend I was a local or that I even knew where I was.
I held a map in my hand, asked a lot of questions and opened myself to the possibility of getting lost, or worse, of looking stupid.
I challenged myself to not take cabs. To depend on trains, buses and trams.
On my feet. On myself. And the time-tested kindness of strangers.
Strangers who reminded me I was never really alone. Leonardo, the 19-year-old man/boy, who saved me from boarding the wrong bus – twice – in Arezzo.
Delilah, another volunteer at Altrocioccolato – the fair trade chocolate festival in Umbria where I began my journey – who sent me to her brother, his wife and cousin in Florence for Aperitivo – the Italian version of happy hour, but with a much better buffet, and a drive through the city.
Who organized a dinner party – which became my birthday party, complete with candles, singing and gifts – among her English-speaking friends when I arrived in Rome a few days later.
Seems my Artist Dates, my time alone, prepared me to be alone. For long walks, shopping at flea markets and eating fatty pork sandwiches while sitting on the edge of a fountain in Campo De Fiore.
It also prepared me to be with people – with ideas and experiences to share.
But mostly it prepared me for my life, the one I dreamed of not so many years ago in Paris— Adventurous. Glamorous. Strong. A world traveler.
A little past midnight, noticing no one had noticed it was now officially my birthday, I stood up and drunkenly announced, “You’re all fuckers. Good night.”
I still cringe thinking about it.
Ten years later, I didn’t behave much better. I spent my birthday in Paris. Yet all I could do was lament about dinner at the restaurant that had been suggested – Chez Chartier. Loud, boisterous. A place where working-class families had fed their families since 1896. Where surly waiters leave your tab written on paper tablecloths and patrons climb ladders to reach the mezzanine dining room. A Parisian institution.
I didn’t think the meal was very good.
My birthday has always been fraught with anxiety. Anxiety created by expectations. Of others. Of myself. Of experiences.
Never mind my friends gather to honor my being here on the planet – some driving more than an hour to join the festivities. Never mind I spend the morning in Amsterdam and the afternoon at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Somehow, in my mind, each celebration missed the mark of being “special enough.”
Until this year..when I turned 45 and decided to spend my birthday alone. Dinner in Paris, breakfast in Rome.
It was the end of a 17-day trip to Italy. A trip where I had gifted myself with hand-stitched Roman sandals in Assisi, and aubergine leather gloves in Florence.
Where I stopped inside a boutique in Rome to inquire about a coat in the window and left wearing it. A short, smart, cream-colored trench with a ruffle. I slipped on a size small – both surprised and delighted to find it fit considering I had eaten gelato every day since my arrival – and looked at myself in the mirror.
I liked it. The coat. My reflection. I didn’t need it, and yet, the words “I’ll take it,” tumbled out of my mouth.
And where 30 minutes later, on Piazza Navona, I questioned what I “deserved,” and if I could justify “more.” Where I pulled a leather bag over my shoulder and across my body — like the one my tour guides Ishmael and Paul wore and which I had twice admired – but left it behind because it felt “too decadent.”
Never mind my mother had sent me a check as an early birthday gift. Never mind a client had given me a several-hundred dollar tip, instructing me to use it for something wonderful in Italy. Never mind I had enough for it.
I went to dinner where I ate pizza with impossibly thin crust, covered with four kinds of cheeses, arugula and bresaola…but I was still thinking about the bag. Strolling back towards the piazza I called out to the universe, “If I am supposed to have this bag, give me a sign.”
I received it, but not until after the salesman wrote up my purchase. When he placed the leather satchel inside of a green fabric bag, wrapped it with string and tied a bow.
I smiled recalling my Aunt Ellie taking me shopping at Jacobson’s – a tony department store in a tony suburb of Detroit – when I was 10-years-old. When I was doughy and awkward and wore a bad Dorothy Hamill haircut.
After purchasing trousers, a sweater, and a bag shaped like a roller skate, she asked that each item be placed in one of the store’s signature silver boxes, embossed with a J, and wrapped in shiny ribbon.
And yet, a few days later, I once again questioned my right to gift wrap my life. This time, to end my travels with a 15-hour layover in Paris. Just long enough to have dinner and to spend the night — on my birthday.
It had sounded like a wonderful idea when I booked the ticket, but as the days grew near it only sounded like a lot of traveling, a lot of navigating, a lot of work for one night.
I ignored that seemingly practical voice and went anyway – roaming the streets of Paris for the third time in this lifetime.
Crossing the Seine in my cream-colored trench, my leather bag strapped across my body, I saw the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame – all lit up. Just like me. I could feel it. I giggled out loud wondering, “Who stops in Paris for 15 hours just for dinner on their birthday?”
I ate a pistachio macaron on the streets before dinner, and later, mussels and pommes frites. And for perhaps the first time in my life, I could not imagine anything making the moment better.
I didn’t wish for a man or a friend. For a different meal. For anyone to sing me happy birthday.
I was delighted by my own company. That I had given myself everything I had wanted most. And in doing so, rather than hoping someone else might, I was happy on my birthday.
It is the story of my life. Or perhaps it is just my fear. That seemingly subtle line between interested self-awareness and narcissistic self-centeredness.
I begin blogging in 2012. Dubious. Wondering what, if anything, I have to say. And who, besides myself and perhaps a few kind-hearted friends, would care.
The questions become irrelevant as life becomes more Technicolor than I am used to. I have no choice. I have to write.
About Rwanda. My birth-mother’s death. Divorce. Romance. Healing.
The unexpected gift of my return to writing following a 15-year absence – what spurs me on in my early, tentative efforts and continues to spur me on today – is the return voices of others. The sense of connection, and its immediacy, is a balm.
I feel seen. Heard. Supported. And even, dare I say, useful. It seems the words I give to my name my experiences are words others have struggled to find.
In time, I find the writing itself is healing. That I am healing myself.
And yet I sometimes still wonder what, if anything, I have to say.
On occasion those closest to me take exception to my writing and I have to consider if what I have written is hurtful or dishonest. If I have compromised their anonymity. Their right to privacy.
And, when blog posts garner little response, I question if what I have to say is still relevant. Interesting. Of value.
Self-doubt. It is the devil of all creatives. Likely all people. But for those whose very lifeblood is the exercise of expression through words or clay or paint or charcoal. Violin, ballet or film. It can kill – the art. The process. The artist. Either metaphorically or literally.
Sunday – Artist Date 73 – is that kind of killer.
I am invited to Megan’s house for a salon. (Think 1920s Paris, the apartment of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.) Her friend, Peggy Shinner will be reading from her recently published book of essays on the body, “You Feel So Mortal.”
Megan thinks I will enjoy the afternoon, both as a writer and a bodyworker. And, she thinks I should perhaps meet Peggy.
Approaching Megan’s door I hear piano music blending with animated chit-chat. Inside there is a table covered in finger foods. Slices of grainy-European bread topped with slices of egg and watercress. Cheeses, jams and chutneys. Chocolate-covered fruit. Elegantly-penned signs in front of each platter, describing its offering.
I make a cup of green tea and easy conversation with the handful of women I know.
Megan introduces Peggy and me, highlighting our shared status as writers and Jewish women. She asks me about my writing. I trip over myself, talking about my blog – life after divorce, not dating, Artist Dates, healing. My proverbial elevator pitch in desperate need of revision, or at the very least practice.
I tell her I believe it might be a book. She smiles.
Later, Megan summons us upstairs, inviting us to find a seat from a row of chairs. Peggy comes to the front of the room, opens her book and begins to read.
“I have Jewish feet,” she reads, continuing on about her father’s and how they are the same. Then digging deeper, she reads about Jewish genetics, especially as applied to feet. And how it was used against her people, my people, in Nazi Germany.
Her story is bigger than just her feet. Just her family.
I feel small. Self-important. Silly. Why don’t I include research in my writing? Facts. Or history — like she does in another essay about her mother and her relation to Nathan Leopold, who with Richard Loeb, sought to commit the perfect crime.
In a Q and A session following the reading, Peggy specifically mentions her desire to reach beyond her own story. To have a greater context.
I don’t buy Peggy’s book. I say goodbye from a distance, a wave, mouthing the words “Thank you.” I am in some sort of self-imposed shame spiral.
I come home and finish reading, “Seducing the Demon,” by Erica Jong. I have forgotten how smart, sassy and irreverent she is. Her casual use of “fuck” and “cunt.” She is my hero.
The book includes an essay that Jong read on “All Things Considered” in 2006. “On Being a Car Wreck” – a response to unfavorable reviews of this book.
“So, instead of seeing the review as a personal vendetta or sexist attack, I’m living with the fact that the critic simply thought my book sucked. So how can I write a better one?
“…Become less self-centered…How do I get over myself?…I’ve always wanted to improve and evolve as a writer…I’ve finally, at age sixty-four, gotten to the point where I realized that there are lives and characters more interesting than mine…”
She was sixty-four. I am just forty-four. Plenty of time.
So says Steven, who I met on Thursday at the Palette and Chisel, at the opening before the opening of my friend Errol’s art show, “City” – Artist Date 49.
Steven is a member of the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus – the beneficiary organization of 20 percent of tonight’s sales. He is introduced to me by the Kent, the Executive Director, who is introduced to me by Stephanie, Errol’s partner.
We are chatting when he gets the nod that it is show time. He grabs my hand and says, “Come on, let’s go.”
“I don’t sing.” I protest, remembering my friend Teresa insisting the same when she was asked to audition for Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco. “Can’t you just belt something out?” So she did – the theme song to the Flintstones. She didn’t make it past the first verse.
“Of course you do,” Steven says. “You are a second tenor.”
He does not push further, but instead, joins his colleagues at the piano.
When he finishes, I ask him how he knows I am a second tenor. “Easy.” Everyone who claims to not sing is a second tenor. It is an easy range to sing, he explains. And there are lots of them – second tenors – so it is easy to be one among many.
I love the idea of me – a straight, Jewish girl who can’t carry a tune – surrounded by gay men singing Christmas carols. It seems somehow “right,” although certainly not congruent to the notion of “one among many.” I have weaseled my way into more unlikely settings. But I am pretty certain he was jesting.
He reminds me of the chorus’ upcoming holiday shows, and invites me to come watch open rehearsals on Sunday afternoons – both potential Artist Dates (Stephanie mentioned my practice to Steven and Kent when she introduced us) – then warmly takes my hand in his and bids me adieu.
Tonight is actually the second Artist Date Stephanie has “invited” me to– the first being her and Errol’s home in Bucktown, which was highlighted in a garden walk this past summer. I am humbled and touched by her interest.
However, I notice that tonight, unlike most of my previous Artist Dates, stirs up very little in terms of thoughts, emotions and memory. I am decidedly – without having made a decision – present.
I notice the chicken satay and Vietnamese spring rolls. The brownies and fruit pastries from Alliance Bakery. All of which I avoid.
The mild flirtation from the bartender who tells me I look like a character from a show on A&E. “But much better looking,” he says. I smile and tell him I do not have a television.
Errol’s paintings. So much rain. Like tiny kaleidoscopes sliding down windshields. It is wet outside tonight. And cold. Winter is coming.
I am drawn to the saturated colors of “Backlit,” “Shadows” and “Days End.” Purples and Yellows. And I tell him so.
My friend Dina asks if I recognize where “Backlit” is painted. I do not.
It is Paris.
She can tell from the roofline, she explains, using a fancy term I don’t know to describe the classically Parisian use of attics.
Dina lived in Paris 30 or so years ago. I always imagined I would live there. Or New York. Or that I still might. They feel familiar to me – they always have. And I’ve never been lost in either one.
Yet, right now in this moment, I feel no desire to be anywhere but Chicago. In spite of its cold, dark, rainy-ness.
I am driving my friend Leslie home and I mention that the man I asked out for coffee via Facebook has not responded. It has been more than two days and I am surprised by his lack of contact. It seems out of character. Mostly because I think he is a man, and not a boy. I am a little disappointed, but nothing more. I’ve made no investment. The crush diminishes.
“And then there were none,” I tell her.
And for once, I don’t mind.
Up until now, life without some sort of love interest felt sad. Somehow lacking. The crush, the flirtation, gave me a sense of hope. Of possibilities.
But I don’t feel sad right now. Absent is the familiar pain stemming from the fear that I will be alone.
Frankly, I am a little stunned. I am afraid to give this experience a voice. That I will jinx it.
All I know is, right now, my life feels full. With friends. With art. With possibilities. And I am, blessedly, not particularly troubled by what I lack. And by moments too far ahead.
It is as it was promised to me, that I would find contentment where I am right now. Content in my role as a second tenor. One among many. Easy.
I’ve always wanted to go into Carlos and Sarah’s Surplus of Options. Ever since a couple of months ago when I saw a wooden crate sitting out front. The kind my friend Dina suggested I find and put in my bathroom – on its end – to hold “interesting things to look at.” And toilet paper.
I saw one of these crates at another thrift store but the owner wanted too much for it (in my opinion) and wasn’t willing to budge. Not even after I purchased her overpriced turquoise vinyl bench from the 1950s.
But I kept forgetting to go. Or perhaps I was just busy filling my days with other things.
A couple of days ago I saw a sign that Carlos and Sarah’s was closing. And I saw it as a sign – my destination for Artist Date 41.
I mention to Carlos that I had been wanting to come in for a long time. He says many people have told him this.
I want to turn around. It is so sad inside. There is so little left. A couple of tables with “sold” signs on them. A painted chest. Some books. Cards. Photos. Boxes of records.
Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. Jose Feliciano. Paul Anka’s 21 Golden Hits.
They remind me of so many trips to Amoeba Records in Berkeley, with my ex. A huge, warehouse-size store lined with rows of albums. Actual records. LPs. We would spend hours there. Him, looking for obscure recordings to play at our dinner parties. Me, giddy ogling at cover art.
I once bought an album by the artist Poon Sow Tang. A photograph of a beautiful Chinese woman wearing gloves, wedged between borders of orange and pink. It was from the early 60s. Awful. I felt like I should be eating really bad egg foo young at a restaurant with fuzzy red and gold wallpaper. The art was genius.
But usually, I didn’t buy the record. I would just carry it around the store for a while, enjoying it. Like the one of Barry White standing next to a curvy swimming pool in Los Angeles. He is wearing a white jumpsuit and is “less heavy.” My ex asked me if I wanted it. It was a buck, I think. “Nah,” I replied. I had my experience with it.
I want to take photos of the albums but I wonder if Carlos will think I am strange. If he will think I am doing something wrong. If he will kick we out. Rather than ask him if he minds if I take a few photos, I wait until he goes into the back room and shoot a couple on my phone. Among them, “Concert for Lovers” and “For My True Love.” The art work is hideous, and the titles make me sad – but I can’t help myself.
There are door handles. Political books. Photographs of a fierce-looking black woman, likely taken in the 1970s. I ask Carlos if she was a model. He has no idea. He bought them at an estate sale.
I pick up a small purple book titled True Thoughts, Good Thoughts; Thoughts Fir to Treasure Up. The pages are yellowing. Some have holes. All of them are falling out of the binding. It is a collection of poetry and prose by Robert Browning. A reading for every day.
April Tenth. “Infinite passion, and the pain/Of finite hearts that yearn.”
September Ninth. “No protesting, dearest!/Hardly kisses even!/Don’t we both know how it ends?/How the greenest leaf turns searest?/Bluest outbreak – blankest heaven?/Lovers – friends?”
The cover page for October. “…Days decrease,/And Autumn grows, Autumn in everything.”
My heart swells.
Inside the cover page is a handwritten name: Ruth Lemson. Inside the back – “So the year’s done with! (Love me forever.)
It is marked $1, but it is on the half-price shelf. I hold on to it while fingering through a stack of rectangular cards –each with a double exposure of an old photograph. I pick two.
“American Scenery: Yosemite Valley, Cal.” It is a picture of El Capitan. A tree bending before it. I have been here many times. The other reads “Paris au Stereoscope: Photographic C’ a Paris.” It is Notre Dame.
I bring these to the counter, along with the Browning book, and ask what they are. Carlos explains the cards are from a Stereograph. It is a predecessor to my childhood ViewFinder. I remember putting the plastic “binoculars” to my eyes and inserting a disc of photographs into it for a 3-D show. Same idea. He does not have the viewer. Just the cards.
I take a couple of photographs – right in front of Carlos. I do not explain myself. He isn’t the least bit fazed. I try on a pair of vintage glasses in the case. They are much too wide from my head.
I ask him about the lamp behind him. He calls it a memory lamp. I cock my head like a confused puppy. He explains that an individual glues his or her “special treasures” to it. It is tacky and awful and painted gold.
Carlos rings me up for my own special treasures – $2.50. And I wish him luck in his next endeavor, inquiring what that might be. He sounds a bit like the Big Lebowski, replying something like, “A little of this. A little of that.”
As I walk out the door, someone walks in. Someone else who has been meaning to and just now is.
I think about timing. About finding something “shiny, something “mine” where it seemed there was nothing. About staying open, while Carlos and Sarah prepare to close.